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Has Chinese Film Finally Produced a Real Hero?

“This Is an Era That Calls for Heroes”—the boldface Chinese characters scream from a publicity poster for the Chinese animation film, Monkey King: Hero is Back, which made headline news in July for breaking the animation box-office record in China. The record was previously held by DreamWorks’ 2011 film Kungfu Panda 2 at $92 million. A legendary trickster known for his mischief and magical powers, Monkey is a character from the Ming dynasty novel Journey to the West, beloved by centuries of Chinese readers. In his latest incarnation, Monkey is given the hero treatment, not just for beating monsters in the film, but for vanquishing Hollywood.

Wikimedia Commons
A shadow puppet depicting Sun Wukong (the Monkey King) from the Ming dynasty novel ‘Journey to the West.’ The character has long been a subject of popular culture in China and, this summer, broke box office records in a new animated feature film.

The dynamic harks back to the 1920s—another era when nationalist feelings ran high—when Chinese filmmakers cultivated kungfu films in pursuit of a “new heroism” to compete with Hollywood for a slice of the domestic market. Hailed for its ability to showcase Chinese people’s physical prowess—a longstanding preoccupation of nationalist Chinese in the aftermath of the Opium war—kungfu film was considered an antidote to the urban melodramas popular at the time, which frequently featured neurotic characters of weak physique. In the mid-1920s, “new heroism cinema” called for national heros who would defy oppressive forces and help the poor and the weak—a theme that would no doubt resonate well in contemporary China. A collective yearning for heroes is not unusual during periods of national crises, and both kungfu masters of the mid-1920s and the resurrected Monkey of the mid-2010s embody China’s fiery patriotic and egalitarian spirit of heroism.

The arrival of new heroism cinema in the 1920s owed much to the popularity in China of Hollywood pictures like the swashbucklers featuring the athletic Douglas Fairbanks, The Three Musketeers (1921) and Robin Hood (1922), which peddled similar heroic tropes for audience gratification. The 1920s were an age of dramatic social and political change in the U.S. Urbanization, rapid economic growth, and the rise of mass culture swept Americans into a consumer society filled with cultural tensions and moral uncertainty. Women gained the right to vote as Prohibition banned alcohol. Migration of African Americans to Northern cities together with the anti-Communist “Red Scare” in 1919 and 1920 led to anti-immigrant hysteria.

Hollywood’s swashbucklers offered an escape from the unsettling “cultural Civil War” between urban and rural dwellers, Protestants and Catholics, blacks and whites, and “New Women” and advocates of old-fashioned family values. The same can be said about the timing of Monkey King, which has descended at a time of great social tension in contemporary China brought upon by urbanization, commercialization, the loss of moral grounding, and tightened political, economic, and cultural control. The film reimagines the Monkey’s encounter with his future master, a historically renowned Tang Dynasy-era monk, but at the time of the film an orphan boy on a mission to save children from evil monsters.

Monkey was brought back to a chaotic society run by youth-eating monsters. Touched by the boy’s courage and encouragement, the Monkey, a reluctant hero seen in this filmic version as consumed by self-doubt and straitjacketed by a curse that limits his magical powers, eventually rises to the occasion and rescues everyone. The iconic Monkey, re-cast as a come-back hero who gradually regains strength and confidence and finally reclaims his magical powers, bears more resemblance to the underdogs of so many Hollywood films than to the archetypal heroes of Chinese children’s animation preaching moral tales. Monkey’s real breakthrough for Chinese cinema is to put an imperfect and individualistic hero on the Chinese cinema landscape. Yet Monkey King’s director, Tian Xiao Peng, disavowed Hollywood as an influence, insisting that “Chinese people have their own values, which means we don’t need to follow the mindset of the West, especially that of Hollywood.” 

Monkey King’s success has resurrected hope for the emergence of a unique Chinese style of animation. Since its inception in the 1920s, Chinese animation has attempted to forge a distinctive national style rooted in the Chinese fine arts tradition that is slower and more deliberate in its pacing than Hollywood’s kinetic speed. Previously called cartoon pictures, Chinese animation films were renamed meishu, or fine art, films in the 1950s in a state-encouraged attempt to cultivate a distinctive Chinese school of animation. Combining two Chinese characters, “mei” (aesthetics) and shu (‘craftsmanship’), animators made use of an assortment of Chinese traditional craft techniques such as shadow puppets, paper-cutting, paper-folding, and ink brush painting. Chinese meishu films prized composition and performance characteristic of Chinese traditional arts over cinematic motion more typical of Hollywood fares. Stylized Peking opera movements were incorporated into Chinese meishu films in the 1950s. Working within this visual idiom, directors mined moralistic Chinese classics and folklore for the films’ plots. As China opened its film market to imports, this child-centered, enlightenment-minded, visually static animation held little appeal for adult audiences who raced instead to more fast-paced and imaginative Japanese and American animation. Monkey King succeeds by taking the conventions for what a classical Chinese animation is supposed to look and feel like and turning it on its head.

Moreover, the film steers clear of the futile quest for “unadulterated” Chineseness. As a Chinese blogger noted, the battle scenes of Monkey fighting monsters in Monkey King recall the battle scenes in The Lord of the Rings. Scenes of Monkey’s underwater struggle recall similar scenes in Skyfall. The body armor of the resurrected Monkey King is eerily similar to the armor in Iron Man. Back in the 1920s, the pioneers of Chinese animation imitated American animators, particularly the Fleischer brothers and Disney. But in today’s China, an obsession with an ethnocentric Chineseness bordering on jingoism, instead of a more cosmopolitan and multicultural outlook, has, thus far, relegated Chinese cinema to an insular local market.

Many careers have been made as a result of Monkey King’s success. The Hong Kong registered company, Lugang Science and Technology Co, which invested in the film, saw its stock price up by 63 percent just weeks after the film’s release. Enlight, a company known for investing in the blockbuster Lost in Thailand, which topped the box-office in 2013, beating Hollywood imports, might regret that it backed out from investing in Monkey King. Enlight did form a joint venture with the film’s creative team to explore aftermarkets, or intellectual property (IP). Intellectual property has become the latest buzzword in a Chinese media industry plagued by piracy and copyright infringement. Since 2013, the majority of Chinese-made films have all been adapted from existing intellectual property with existing fan bases. Chinese classical novels such as The Water Margin and Journey to the West, with popularity longevity, are considered gold mines for IP, or what some called super IP, particularly given China’s soft power push with Chinese tradition and value at its core. But the global market has yet to embrace the Chinese classics. The last time I chatted with my multi-national film students in New York, not many were familiar with Monkey King. But everyone knew Kungfu Panda.

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But in China, Monkey King’s box-office victory over Hollywood was heralded in local media. The Internet lit up with patriotic kudos. Then came the news of a record-breaking Chinese July box office month buttressed not by Hollywood productions but by China’s own films. Monster Hunt, a fantasy film blending live-action and animation, debuted on July 16 and quickly ascended to be the highest-grossing Chinese movie ever. To the Chinese state, China’s beating Hollywood at the Chinese summer box office was a far more exciting story. Led by Furious 7, Hollywood’s share of China’s box office was well over 50 percent in June. But that winning streak came to a halt on June 19th when the state imposed screen quotas, i.e., “domestic film protection period” kicked in. China’s commissars use the blackout period to ensure that local films maintain at least a 50 percent annual share of box office receipts to stimulate the consumption of domestic pictures and to foster national pride. In the past, the summer blackout has often led to a dip in attendance. This year, owing partly to the rising cinema exhibition capacity, the domestic crowd pleasers drew record audiences in the absence of Hollywood films. China Film News, the official newspaper of the China Film Bureau, promptly put out an “authoritative news release” with a screeching headline that reads, “What ‘Protection?’: With a Record-Breaking 54.9亿 (U.S.$858Million) in Box Office Sales, [Chinese] Cinema Closing in on U.S. Record.” The article drives home the point that the Chinese domestic market is no longer dependent upon Hollywood pictures. It denies that regulations banning Hollywood movies during high summer season ever existed. It claims that the absence of Hollywood films in July was not due to an official ban but to the China Film Group’s sluggishness in approving the annual quota of foreign films as the institution undergoes restructuring. The story asserts that Hollywood volunteered to withdraw from the Chinese market during the period out of fear of an onslaught of domestic blockbuster films.

There is nothing wrong with attempting to protect domestic pictures by imposing quotas and enforcing “protection weeks,” which is not a uniquely Chinese phenomenon. In South Korea, for instance, though a quota on the number of film imports has been lifted, the screen quota, a policy stipulating a minimum number of screening days per year for domestic film exhibition has persisted, which provides continued protection for domestic films. Amidst intense pressure from Hollywood via the U.S. government, the number of days South Korea reserves for local productions has gone down from 165 per year to 73 per year since 2006. As the debate between free trade and protections for local industries rages on, more open competition with Hollywood imports seems to have stimulated South Korean local productions and subsequently South Korean film exports, which contributes to the rising stock of South Korean soft power. It remains to be seen whether, in the long term, the protectionist measure can spur genuine competitiveness for the Chinese film industry.

The doubt lingers as to whether Monkey King and Monster Hunt would perform as well if their Hollywood counterparts were not shut out of the Chinese market. The threat of Hollywood remains real and trade embargoes and economic sanctions do work in the short run. In the end, the resurrected Monkey King needs to prove that it can beat Hollywood fair and square solely via its own magical power.